Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dallas Buyer's Club -- learning acceptance the hard way

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013 (R)

The movie opens at a rodeo in Texas. We see Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in a dark stall beside the arena having sex with two women while bulls are being ridden in the arena. This scene lets us know that Ron is a lusty, red-blooded man. It also communicates the type of movie this will be: dark and explicit. Sex, drugs, drinking, all are on vivid display. This is not for the faint-hearted or the young. (In the screening I viewed, there were two pre-schoolers present and I cannot but wonder at the type of parents that would allow two girls to see this film.) It is quite a contrast to his earlier film, The Young Victoria, which was elegant and refined. This is crude and crass, like the people it depicts. Realistic but with a heart and a message, this is deservedly one of the best pictures of the year.

Based on a true story, Woodroof was a hard-living electrician and part-time rodeo-rider in Dallas in 1985. We meet him hustling some other cowboys and winds up collapsing on the floor of his mobile home. When he finds  himself at the hospital, the doctors give him bad news: has the HIV virus and has 30 days to live. At first he is in denial, and goes back to coke-snorting, whiskey-drinking and women-screwing. He is not gay. He is not a syringe-using junkie. But he wakes up to the reality of his imminent demise, and goes into research mode.

His research shows him that casual unprotected sex can lead to HIV. When he winds up in hospital again, he meets Eve (Jennifer Garner), a doctor who wants to help, and Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite who also is infected. Ron wants to get AZT, the new wonder drug, but this has not been FDA approved and his only source is bribing an orderly to steal it. Once that runs out he is forced to go to Mexico, where he discovers other drugs and vitamins that help and he survives past the 30 day death-sentence.

Through a partnership with Rayon, Ron begins to see a way to make money for himself by smuggling these vitamins and non-approved drugs into the US and selling them to gays and lesbians. Over time, though, the reluctant partnership with Rayon becomes a friendship.

There is a message related to the lunacy of the FDA in trying to thwart Woodroof, though the drugs have not been shown to be damaging. One doctor, Dr Sevard (Denis O'Hare), is portrayed as a pawn of big pharma, and one FDA agent seems to have a fead with Woodroof.

This issue aside, a strong theme of the film is acceptance. At the beginning Woodroof is openly homophobic, using strong epithets to curse out the gays he reads about (such as Rock Hudson). But once he contracts HIV, his friends reject him. Like a modern day leper, he is avoided like the plague. His home is painted with graffiti. He is mocked and belittled. The only ones that will accept him are those in the same situation as him, and the compassionate caregivers, such as Eve and a doctor in Mexico. By the end of the film, his friends are the outcast, the lonely and dying. He learned acceptance, but at what cost.

How often do we turn away from the outcast, those on the fringes of society. These may be AIDS patients or homeless people. We look down our noses at them, and avoid them. But they are people just like us, with hopes and dreams. But for the grace of God, we could be in their shoes. Ron Woodroof found this out. We can learn from the lesson of his life.

McConaughey lost 47 pounds for his role, and appears gaunt and haggard. Gone is the man who wooed Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner. Instead, we see a thespian of immense proportions, one who will likely win the Best Actor Oscar for this performance. Alongside him, Jared Leto lost 30 pounds to transform himself into the image of a pretty woman. After five years focused on music, Leto's performance shows how good an actor he is, one who is up for Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Both actors took home Golden Globe awards for these roles in January. They might just repeat the act in March at the Academy Awards.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

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